AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Lee Iacocca, the legendary former CEO of Chrysler, has died at the age of 94. He left an outsized mark on the car industry and the business world in general as an early example of the modern celebrity CEO. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Above all, Lee Iacocca was a salesman. As the CEO of Chrysler, he pitched cars directly to the American public through television ads where he made the case personally.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
LEE IACOCCA: You know, when I first took this crazy job, they were ready to bury Chrysler. Last year, you've made us the fastest growing car and truck company in America.
DOMONOSKE: And as a result, he became personally famous. Iacocca was a legend in the auto industry. He had a meteoric rise at Ford where he helped launch the Mustang, an affordable stylish, sports car. Then he had a storied career at Chrysler where he saved the company from the brink of bankruptcy in the early '80s. He brought Americans the minivan, the practical family hauler no one realized they wanted until they saw it. He was on the cover of magazines. He wrote a bestselling book, and he starred in all those TV ads.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
IACOCCA: If you can find a better car, buy it.
DOMONOSKE: At the time, it was unusual for an auto executive to be the public face of his product. Dan Albert is an automotive historian and the author of "Are We There Yet?"
DAN ALBERT: Certainly in Detroit, the idea of the CEO being on the cover of magazines and on the radio and on the television ads, these guys much preferred to kind of keep quiet and stay out of the way and let the brand speak for themselves.
DOMONOSKE: Instead, Iacocca spoke for his brand, and America listened. Paul Eisenstein is the publisher of The Detroit Bureau, an automotive magazine.
PAUL EISENSTEIN: I spoke to one gentleman who spent many years working with Iacocca, and he said that he thought that Chrysler didn't sell K-cars and minivans. It sold Iacocca mobiles.
NANCY KOEHN: What Lee Iacocca is doing in these high-profile positions is not just advertising or promoting the company and its products. He's doing it, you know, by promoting himself.
DOMONOSKE: Nancy Koehn is a historian at Harvard Business School. She notes that some people called for Iacocca to run for president.
KOEHN: I think that's a very important piece when we talk about celebrity CEOs in what we're talking about. We're talking about a relationship not just with the product or the brand or the company - a relationship with the person.
DOMONOSKE: Now, America has always had a reverence for founders and inventors, the entrepreneurs who create companies. People called for Henry Ford to run for president, too. Everyone from Estee Lauder to Steve Jobs had devout fans. But for a long time, CEOs, people who led companies that were started by other people, they didn't inspire the same awe. Rakesh Khurana is a professor at Harvard Business School.
RAKESH KHURANA: They were often seen as individuals who largely were administering large, complex bureaucracies. And in many ways, the organization was bigger than the individual.
DOMONOSKE: Iacocca was a different kind of CEO, a charismatic personality who came in during a moment of crisis.
KHURANA: Particularly during periods of uncertainty and periods of change, the human psyche is very susceptible to looking for a savior.
DOMONOSKE: Lee Iacocca did save Chrysler, but by the end of his career, he was less beloved. He'd become a symbol of corporate greed. And as a superstar CEO with eye-popping pay, he was part of a trend.
KHURANA: In my own research that I found is boards increasingly started just looking at the personalities of the individual.
DOMONOSKE: That favors charismatic outsiders over strong internal candidates, and it also fuels exorbitant CEO pay packages. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.